Abolish the Federal Gasoline Tax!

Earlier this month, Peter Van Doren and I published a study calling for the total elimination of the federal gasoline tax. Well, the first wave of commentary is in and, thus far, we are greatly underwhelmed. Gas tax proponents are going to have to do a lot better than this to hold the intellectual fort.

Over at the Economist, we are accused of misrepresenting citations when we argue that a doubling of the gasoline tax would only reduce tailpipe pollution by about 6 percent over the long run; an accusation also levied by some commenters at Marginal Revolution. The Economist writes:

Consultation of the cited source seems to show not that an increase in efficiency leads to a 20 percent jump in vehicle miles traveled, but that roughly 20 percent of total energy savings from efficiency gains are lost to increased travel. That’s quite a different point, implying that efficiency gains could have a significant impact on emissions.

We happily accept the clarification. The Economist has crisply stated what we in fact meant to say. But clarifying the point does not undercut our argument.

The “rebound effect” discussed above is one reason why aggregate tailpipe emissions will not be reduced as much as gas tax proponent think. But the other – and more important – reason can be found in J. Daniel Khazzoom’s userID=d8b90bfe [at] cato [dot] org/01cce4405b00501c7188b&dpi=3&config=jstor">paper which we cited. To wit, current law regulates tailpipe emissions per mile traveled, not per gallon of fuel consumed. A gasoline tax will induce a consumer shift towards more fuel efficient vehicles, and that shift will lead to only modest reductions in vehicle miles traveled. The upshot is found on page 438 of Khazzoom’s paper: Just as we said, a doubling of the gasoline tax would only reduce tailpipe pollution by about 6 percent over the long run.

Now, a careful critic might point out that this problem could be remedied by regulating tailpipe emissions per unit of fuel consumed rather than by vehicles miles traveled. But we haven’t run into that careful critic as of yet. We do anticipate and acknowledge the point, however, in endnote 32 of our paper.

Another large batch of commenters score us for not conceding that gasoline taxes are an efficient means of addressing greenhouse gas emissions from cars. But it never occurred to us to state the obvious – that if society wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the most efficient means of doing this isn’t with a gasoline tax. It’s with a carbon tax.

Greg Mankiw asks us: “If Congress were considering repeal of the gasoline tax together with an income tax increase to make up the lost revenue, would you favor this revenue-neutral change in the tax mix?” Answer – no. The best way to make up for the revenue loss associated with repeal of the federal gasoline tax would be to eliminate the federal spending associated with the tax. Transportation infrastructure should be a state or local undertaking – not a federal undertaking.

Lurking behind that question, however, is the belief that raising revenue via a gasoline tax imposes less efficiency losses on the economy than raising revenue via an income tax. We don’t think much of that argument, but we discuss it at length in our paper so we won’t go through it again here. Perhaps when Prof. Mankiw gets around to reading our paper, he’ll have something further to say on that score.

There is little else of substance for us to deal with after Round 1.

For instance, many commenters have argued that our paper does not properly take into consideration the underlying literature, which supposedly cuts strongly against our arguments. That literature, we are told, was most recently surveyed by Ian Parry et al. in the June issue of the Journal of Economic Literature.

But this simply tells us that most of the opinions being expressed on these blogs are uninformed by any actual reading. Even a casual look at our paper demonstrates that we review and discuss the same literature discussed in Parry et al and, in fact, we cite Parry’s work extensively throughout. Moreover, Parry et al.’s paper in the JEL makes the same point we make in our study – that a gasoline tax is a deeply problematic means of addressing the externalities associated with driving and that there are far better policy tools available to get the job done. Parry et al. suggest that federal gasoline taxes might be a reasonable “second-best” policy, but we anticipate and counter those arguments in our study, so I won’t go into them here.

Remarkably, no one has yet taken up the most radical challenge offered to the common wisdom in our paper: that even a perfectly efficient gasoline tax would do more harm than good because it would induce more mass transit use, and mass transit use imposes even more costs on society than passenger vehicle use. For this argument, we rely on work done by Mark Delucchi at the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California and Cliff Winston at Brookings. Is anyone up to the task?

A Poor Investment

The Census Bureau today released the latest figures on poverty in the U.S, showing that 12.3 percent of Americans (roughly 36.5 million people) live below the poverty line. Nothing could better illustrate the continued failure of the American welfare state. Despite spending more than $477 billion on some 50 different programs to fight poverty last year, the actual reduction in poverty was trivial. Indeed, since Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in 1965, the U.S. government has spent more than $11 trillion fighting poverty without success.

One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Perhaps its time to try something different.

Observers have known for a long time that the surest ways to stay out of poverty are to finish school; not get pregnant outside marriage; and get a job, any job, and stick with it. That means that if we wish to fight poverty, we must end those government policies—high taxes and regulatory excess—that inhibit growth and job creation. We must protect capital investment and give people the opportunity to start new businesses. We must reform our failed government school system to encourage competition and choice. We must encourage the poor to save and invest.

More importantly, the real work of fighting poverty must come not from the government, but from the engines of civil society. An enormous amount of evidence and experience shows that private charities are far more effective than government welfare programs. While welfare provides incentives for counterproductive behavior, private charities can use their aid to encourage self-sufficiency, self-improvement, and independence. Private charities can individualize their approaches and target the specific problems that are holding people in poverty.

The big question is how much more money–and how many more lives–will we waste until we realize that, as Ronald Reagan used to say, “government isn’t the solution; government is the problem.”

U.S. Manufacturing Sector Needs No Protection from Congress

Protectionist measures currently being considered on Capitol Hill would damage America’s manufacturing base and fail to take into account that the nation’s manufacturing sector is in fact booming. In “Thriving in a Global Economy: The Truth about U.S. Manufacturing and Trade,” Cato scholar Daniel J. Ikenson argues, “Justification for [protectionist] bills is predicated on the belief that manufacturing is in decline and that the failure of U.S. trade policy to address unfair competition is to blame. But those premises are wrong. The totality of evidence points to a robust manufacturing sector that has thrived on account of greater international trade.”

Gonzales and the Constitution

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales presumably resigned because he had lost support in Congress, especially over issues relating to the firing of U.S. attorneys. But Tim Lynch, director of Cato’s Project on Criminal Justice, has long insisted that the real problem with Gonzales was not incompetence, faulty memory, or his confusing explanations of how the U.S. attorneys came to be dismissed. Rather, he wrote in May:

In area after area – from habeas corpus to separation of powers to executive responsibility – he has sought to strip out the limits that the Constitution places on presidential power. His fiasco regarding the firing of federal prosecutors is a petty offense when compared to the legal advice that he has conveyed to the President. The real scandal is his disregard for constitutional principles.

That’s why you have to appreciate Gonzales’s decision to resign effective September 17, Constitution Day. Maybe he wants to send a subtle signal that the end of his tenure could be an occasion to recover our commitment to constitutional limits on federal power and on presidential power.

Constitution Day is also, of course, famous as the day that the Cato Supreme Court Review is released at an all-day symposium on the Supreme Court’s most recent term.

The Blue Dog Fraud

Many of the newly-elected Democrats in the House of Representatives campaigned as fiscally conservative independents, but the Wall Street Journal reveals that these so-called blue-dog Democrats generally have been supporters of higher taxes and bigger government. Too bad these fiscal frauds aren’t more like the “Boll Weevil” Democrats, members of Congress who provided the margin of victory for many reforms to limit the burden of government during the Reagan years:

So far this year the blue dogs have been almost all bark when it comes to fiscal restraint and debt reduction. Thirty of the 48 have voted for every one of the non-defense spending bills their committee chairman have sent them. …28 of the 48 blue dogs voted “no” on each of the 27 amendments that Republicans proposed to cut the costs of these bills. …Voting records from recent years confirm that the blue dogs are less than consistent spending hawks. The National Taxpayers Union did some checking and found that the blue dogs had an average fiscal score of 24 out of 100, earning them a grade of D as a group. It also found that last year the blue dogs sponsored $145 of new spending for every dollar of budget reductions, for a net spending increase per member of more than $140 billion. The blue dogs are consistent on one fiscal issue: stopping tax cuts. As a group they opposed the Bush tax cuts and the extension of those tax cuts, and a super-majority vote requirement to raise taxes–all in the name of easing the debt burden on future generations. But those concerns evaporated when all but nine in the blue dog coalition voted to expand the Schip health-care program to include many middle-class families, at a cost of $132.6 billion over the 2008-2017 period.

Politics Today

The Washington Post reports today that John Edwards’s new strategy is to reposition himself as a “straight talker,” emulating the model that worked for John McCain in 2000. As someone said, “Sincerity is everything. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

Meanwhile, the Post also tells us about the lifelong congressional insider who’s helping Barack Obama craft his image as a Washington outsider.

What a country. It reminds me of the presidential campaign manager who once told me, “We’ve made a tentative decision to run a bold campaign.”

The Privatization Revolution Reaches the Kibbutz

A fascinating headline in the New York Times today:

The Kibbutz Sheds Socialism and Gains Popularity  

It seems that one of the proudest accomplishments of socialism – one that never degenerated into totalitarianism! – the Israeli kibbutz, began to decline in the 1980s as even small-scale socialism proved not to work very well. People left the kibbutzim, and they seemed doomed. But now, as the Times puts it, “most are undergoing a process of privatization,” though just as in China and other reforming socialist societies, they prefer not to use such a word. Nevertheless, the Times says,

On most kibbutzim, food and laundry services are now privatized; on many, houses may be transferred to individual members, and newcomers can buy in. While the major assets of the kibbutzim are still collectively owned, the communities are now largely run by professional managers rather than by popular vote. And, most important, not everyone is paid the same.

Once again, people are lining up to get in.

One difference between libertarianism and socialism is that a libertarian society allows for voluntary experiments in socialism, while a socialist society can hardly accommodate people who prefer to live in a libertarian community. In a free society, if kibbutzim or other experiments in communal living can make a go of it, more power to them. And if the original design doesn’t quite work, then adjustments can be made. And the rest of us benefit by having more patterns and models available to choose from.